This five-year project (2017-2022) on mountain cultures and travel histories in the Eastern Himalaya aims to explore religious expression in written and oral depictions of Himalayan travel. We hope to examine how historical and contemporary travelogues, guidebooks and guiding discourses construct mountains as sacred, utopian, or otherwise religiously empowered; to think about how individual transnational encounters define mountains in religious or spiritual terms, as expressed in oral histories of pilgrims, mountaineers, or residents of the Himalayan foothills; and to contribute to histories of Himalayan travel by local and international communities, contributing a globally informed perspective on sacred space and travel.

Our primary site is Mt Khangchendzonga, straddling India and Nepal, which was recognized by UNESCO as a natural and cultural World Heritage Site in 2016. This mountain has been the subject of guidebook writing in Tibetan since the fourteenth century, and local and international communities continue to travel around and to the region. We hope to add to the understanding of guidebooks and travel past and present, and examine how European and Asian forms of expeditionary travel have global impact. We hope to explore how mountain spaces are constructed by inflections of power and transnational forces, how religious practices interact with the environment, and how stories embedded in local landscapes shape a traveler’s experience.

The project involves text-historical, archival, and oral history research in Canada, the US, UK, India, and Nepal. Project researchers are located at University of Toronto in Canada, and in India at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok, East Sikkim, and the Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee (KCC) in Yuksam, West Sikkim.

This project is funded by a grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Student Training and Community Engagement

This project is designed around student and citizen engagement, drawing on models of public history and community-based research. From 2016-2018, Garrett and Price taught an immersive field course in Sikkim that focused on Buddhist pilgrimage travel, the influence of rivers on Himalayan cultures, and the interplay between religious institutions and environmental sustainability movements in the region.

In the summer of 2017, undergraduate Study of Religion student Damien Boltauzer worked with the KCC in Yuksam on digitizing their archival materials. Over the summer of 2018, Damien Boltauzer investigated a 29km pilgrimage route (gnas skor) around the peak of Drilburi in the Lahaul region of northern Himachal Pradesh (near the border with Ladakh), near Keylong and the ancient monastery of Gandhola/Guru Ghantal. This pilgrimage occurs on the full moon of June. Damien is now studying and working in Nepal for the academic year.

In 2017-18, students in Matt Price’s undergraduate course at University of Toronto, Hacking History, continued to work with the KCC leadership and staff and their archival materials. Damien Boltauzer continued to catalog the growing database of images, recordings, and archival documents. In May 2018, Garrett, Price, and six undergraduate students from University of Toronto traveled to West Sikkim to meet with KCC leadership and to lead a web development skills workshop for KCC staff and local community members.

The partnership between U of T and the KCC has led in 2018 of a project called Code at the Edge, which is developing a web development curriculum appropriate to the mountain region. This was piloted at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalay School for Girls in Labang, West Sikkim, in a two-week workshop on coding and sustainability in February 2019.

Students at the KGBV school doing an art project on sustainability
Students at the KGBV school doing an art project on sustainability

Sikkim’s Sacred Sites

Meanwhile, in Toronto, Frances Garrett, Khenpo Kunga Sherab, and Dakpa Gyatso have been studying Tibetan language guidebooks to Sikkim as a hidden land (sbas yul). Translation work and publications related to this research should start to be available in 2019.

An international workshop on “Hidden Lands in Himalayan Myth and History: Transformations of Beyul (sBas yul) through Time” was held in Toronto in December 2017, featuring thirteen paper presentations. An edited volume of these papers is now under review for publication.

In Sikkim, Anna Balikci-Denjongpa is working with monks from Pemayangtse monastery on a book that documents sacred sites in the Khangchendzonga National Park and the environs.

Project Events

April 2019

Nepali Language Workshop at University of Toronto with Laxmi Nath Shrestha from Kathmandu. Laxmi Nath Shrestha is a widely acclaimed Nepali language teacher who has served as a teacher of several generations of Nepal Studies scholars. Over the last 15 years he has been conducting courses at universities in Heidelberg, Lisbon, Marburg, and Vienna.

April 8, 2019

Presentation on Code at the Edge project by Dawn Walker, at the DCI Research Studio on “Values, Emotions, Choices: The psychology of systems design.”

February 2019

An intensive two-week workshop on coding and sustainability at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalay School for Girls in Labang, West Sikkim.

December 4-7, 2018

Workshop series with Dr. Ruth Gamble (Latrobe University). Dr Gamble has research expertise in the history, cultures, religions, literature, and languages of Tibet and the Himalaya. She is interested in the rapidly changing environment in this region and the effects it has on its inhabitants. Dr. Gamble was a researcher at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany and taught Tibetan language studies and Asian Religions at the Australian National University. She was the inaugural fellow of Yale University’s Himalaya Initiative and is now a David Myers Research Fellow at La Trobe University. She is researching and writing a history of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River, and working as an environmental historian and cultural advisor in a multi-disciplinary project focused on rehabilitating the eastern Tibetan Plateau’s peatlands.

December 4: Outdoor Walk – “River Histories, Cultures, and Environments: Walking the Humber River.” Join U of T faculty, students, community members, and Ruth Gamble, for a walking tour of the Humber River led by Alan Colley of Toronto Aboriginal Eco Tours.

December 5: Lecture and discussion on “Concreting the World’s Highest River: Environmental, Cultural and Geopolitical Impacts of Developing the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River”

The transboundary Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River flows across the Tibetan Plateau at an average altitude of more than 4000 meters, before entering northeast India through the world’s deepest gorge. The river feeds two biodiversity hotspots in the Himalaya and over 200 million people in South Asia. It has played a central role in Tibetan religious, cultural and political history for millennia, and recent clashes between China and India over its waters look set to intensify as both nations seek to develop its basin. China, in particular, is engaged in a profound transformation of the river through multiple large-scale development projects: hydro-electrical dams, a high-speed rail line, a freeway, relocated housing, tourism infrastructure, and large agricultural projects. Many of the resources to build this infrastructure, including sand and water, are taken straight from the river and processed in concrete factories along the river’s edge. Using photographs and videos from a recent field trip, Ruth Gamble will discuss the diverse implications of this profound transformation

December 6:  Lecture “An Invitation from the Guardians of the Earth: the Relationship between Reincarnation, Sacred Geography and Nature on the Tibetan Plateau”

December 7:  Reading workshop on “Landscapes” from Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism: the Third Karmapa and the Invention of a Tradition”

February 27, 2018

Kikee D. Bhutia on “Beyul Demojong: Bhutia Kingship and the Dawn of Buddhism and Identity among the Lhopos of Sikkim”

Kikee’s paper aimed to situate the sacred landscape of Sikkim according to belief narratives that revolve around the arrival of Guru Padmasambhava. It is believed that when Guru Padmasambhava was on his way to Tibet, he passed the Hidden Land of Demojong and sanctified the land, taming supernatural beings by turning them into the guardian deities of the land and hiding terma in different parts of the land. She discussed how these myths both sanctified the landscape and drew on the sacred geography of the land, and how these became pilgrimage places for the people of Sikkim.

Kikee D Bhutia is a PhD candidate at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu. Before joining Tartu, she worked as a Research Assistant in Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok (Sikkim, India). At Namgyal Institute, she was involved in various projects including transcription, translation and transmission of oral histories and proverbs and also assisting in ethnographic documentary filmmaking.

Kikee’s research focuses on belief narratives regarding yul lha gzhi bdag (guardian deities), in Sikkim, and particularly seeks to draw out the relational principles that connect these deities with villagers in their everyday life. Her research is an exploration of the beliefs, values, stories and rituals she grew up with, and so she sees her research as both an academic endeavour and a quest for discovering and understanding ‘the self’.

February 6, 2018

Aadil Brar on “Heritage Without People: UNESCO World Heritage and the Bureaucracy of Development”

As India’s first “mixed” World Heritage site, the Khangchendzonga National Park, was recognized by UNESCO for both its natural and cultural significance. The listing — meant to be a recognition of “deep cultural meanings and sacred significance” — was celebrated by the government, local officials, and the tourism industry. But where are the people who called the KNP their home? This seven-month investigative research revealed a complicated story of forest dwellers being displaced, bureaucratic control, and tourism driven heritage management. This talk will delve on the impact of UNESCO World Heritage program in Sikkim, and examine the role of Forest, Environment and Wildlife Management Department in forest and cultural heritage management. Brar will also discuss the Forest Rights Act of 2006 in context of Sikkim and India.

Aadil Brar is an international freelance journalist and a National Geographic Young Explorer. His articles have appeared in the Diplomat Magazine, The Northeast Today, the Asian Pacific Memo among other publications. Aadil holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of British Columbia, and is based in Toronto, Canada.

May 2018

A one-week web skills workshop at the Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee in Yuksam, Sikkim, and an afternoon web skills workshop at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalay School for Girls in Labang, West Sikkim.

April 2018

We hosted a three-week intensive workshop in introductory Spoken Nepali language at the University of Toronto, attended by members of our research team and other local graduate and undergraduate students, and led by a member of the local Nepali community, Dr Binod Baral.

December 15-18, 2017

Workshop on “Hidden Lands in Himalayan Myth and History: Transformations of Beyul (sBas yul) through Time,” convened by Frances Garrett, Geoffrey Samuel, Elizabeth McDougal and Ian Baker. This three-day workshop was sponsored by the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Toronto, and the Body, Health and Religion Research Group of Cardiff University. The proceedings of this workshop are now under review for publication.

Hidden Lands conference participants
Hidden Lands conference participants

Project Team

Damien Boltauzer is an undergraduate in Anthropology at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. He has a deep interest in religious/sacred spaces and geographies in the Himalayan Buddhist world. He has conducted research with the KCC in Sikkim and also in Ladakh, and he spent last fall studying in Kathmandu.

Anna Balikci Denjongpa has a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is a Canadian citizen now working in Sikkim as NIT Research Coordinator and editor of the Bulletin of Tibetology. An anthropologist whose research interests centre on Sikkim’s indigenous cultures, history and the medium of ethnographic film, her doctoral research was funded by SSHRC (1994-1998) and later published as Lamas, Shamans and Ancestors: Village Religion in Sikkim (Brill 2008). Since 2003 she has directed the Sikkim Video Archive, a collaborative visual anthropology project producing a documented audio-visual record of indigenous Sikkimese cultures with a focus on ritual. With her local research team she has completed a series of eight ethnographic films on Sikkim’s indigenous Lepcha and Bhutia communities, which have been screened at several film festivals worldwide. She is currently working on a book on the history of Sikkim.

Frances Garrett

Dakpa Gyatso Acharya is a native Tibetan translator and researcher. He studied at the Central University of Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, majoring Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language, where he earned the Shastri [BA] and Acharya degrees [MA]. After completion of the Acharya degree, he served as the personal secretary to Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche, son of Terton Namkha Drimed Rabjam Rinpoche. During his work, he also served as the head of the Ripa Private Office and translator of Terton Namkha Rinpoche. He travelled extensively with Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche in this capacity. Dakpa has translated and edited numerous articles and books including the “Activities of Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the West,” the Historical and Religious Life of the King Gesar of Ling [Tibetan], the entire cycle of Tagsham Samten Lingpa’s treasure-teachings (termas) for International Nyingma Buddhist Encyclopedia, the Ripa Buddhist Monastic Code, Odisha Buddhist Connection and so on. Dakpa has been working on his own book-in-progress: the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibetan-Sanskrit-English and its commentary. In 2014, he came to Nova Scotia, Halifax, where he lived for three years working with Nalanda Translation Committee. In April 2017, he moved to Toronto along with his wife and daughter. Currently, he lives in Toronto working with Prof. Frances Garrett; he also works for Nalanda Translation Committee, and the Berzin Archive e.V. as a translator and editor.

Faraz Khoshbakhtian is currently an undergraduate student of Computer Science and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He became a part of Himalayan Borderlands team in September of 2018. He is keen in exploring new strategies of improving web literacy around the world.

Molly Mignault is a graduate student at the University of Toronto in the Department for the Study of Religion where she is doing a collaborative specialization with the School of the Environment. Her research interests are focused on the relationship between environmental preservation and natural sacred sites within South Asia. She received an Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto in 2017 where she studied religious studies, environmental studies and geography.

As a historian of science and technology, Matt Price has been interested in the social impacts of technologies his whole adult life. His interest in digital technology emerged partly out of his research (especially on early cybernetics, in the 1950s and 1960s) and partly from his practical engagement teaching technical skills to kids and people in social housing. His hope in much of his teaching is that students come away, first, with a sense of how digital technologies can both enhance and diminish what some philosophers have called “human flourishing” and others “emancipation”; and second, equipped with the tools they need to help nudge our society along in the right direction.

Khenpo Kunga Sherab joined the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto as a PhD student in 2016. His research is in the area of contemporary Tibetan Buddhist scholars’ engagement with science with a particular interest in Buddhist and contemporary scientific theories of consciousness, karma and reincarnation. He received an MA, also from the DSR, in 2014. Khenpo has worked at the DSR since 2009 both as a course instructor of Tibetan language and as a Research Consultant, assisting with student and faculty research and teaching in Tibetan Studies. Before coming to the University of Toronto, Khenpo received a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastic education and earned the advanced title of Khenpo (abbot) in 2005 from the Dzongsar Institute for Advanced Studies of Buddhist Philosophy and Research in India. He then taught for many years at Dzongsar Institute, India and Zurmang Buddhist College in Sikkim, India. He is the author of several works on Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan.

Laila Stradz is a graduate student at the University of Toronto in the Adult Education and Community Development program with a collaborative specialization in Environmental Studies. She received my Honours Bachelor of Science in Psychology and have a keen interest in researching the psychological motivators for pro-environmental behaviours. It was through experiences such as international exchanges to Germany and Australia and working with the City of Toronto in municipal politics that she realized the importance of experiential and community-engaged learning.

Dawn Walker is a PhD student at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto. Her research focuses on how values are negotiated in the design of emerging alternative and “decentralized” web and internet infrastructures. She also imagines possibilities for grassroots and decentralized (environmental) data with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) and Data Together. She completed her Master’s of Information at the University of Toronto in 2016. Dawn also hold an Honours Bachelor of Arts with Distinction in Philosophy and History.